Ma sighed. “Oh, Harold. You never could do it proper. Come here.” She reached up, high up, stretched far as she could go. Even with her Sunday black patent leather heels, Ma wasn’t bigger ’n a minute.
Pa grumbled, “Now, Mother…” but she wasn’t having none of it.
She muttered, “He was your friend for nigh on thirty years,” as if that explained why a man needed a noose round his neck to go look at a corpse laid out, friend or not.
Pa screwed his face into obstinate, trying to back away but Ma had him against the dresser, moving her fingers faster than I could follow. “I don’t see why…”
We all whiplashed around to stare at Grams. She’d taken the apron off and smoothed down the gingham, her hands fussing at the waistline and the cloth belt that barely contained her ample weight.
Ma stepped back, satisfied. Grams sniffed. You could see she was thinking she’d have done it better, but since Ma was just the daughter-in-law, not blood, Grams held it didn’t always do to speak your mind and then come away seeming petty. Or vindictive.
I’d overheard Grams saying something to that effect when I was loitering and the ladies were deep into their card game with the sweating glasses of iced tea and the package cookies, arranged in circles on a plate. There’d be talk of blessings and comfort, though it sounded like lip service to me, like they didn’t mean it. But maybe the Lord was listening in so they all hauled ass to the Christian train and rode that caboose for a spell before finding something else to remark on.
Pa, now, he was different. He allowed some straight talk, like when we was slopping hogs or fixing the pen round the hen house. He’d say a few things, whatever was on his mind at the time, sounding it out, worrying at it. Like he couldn’t decide whether or not it was right to speak it, or maybe it was better to shut his mouth and stay out of it.
“Women’s stuff, Jackie. Know what I’m talking about?”
I didn’t, not exactly, but if I said so that’d be the end of it. That kind of admission only got you so far with Pa. Mostly he pulled a blank stare or spouted a quote from the good book, tiptoeing around the thing you hadn’t a clue about. I never found that helpful, but fibbing… That opened doors, opened confidences Grams would call it.
So I said uh-huh, yeah, yup, anything to keep him going.
This day—maybe ’cause of the sadness from old man Barker passing—Pa wasn’t finding reasons to speak on anything, so we just worked side-by-side, quiet-like. And that was good, too.
Then he said, right outta the blue, “You’ll understand soon enough, boy.”
We both grunted at the load on our pitchforks, mine lighter than Pa’s but I tried matching best I could. He heaved the wet straw onto the spreader and stepped aside so I had a clear shot. I did like he showed me, my wrist flicking it just so. It landed next to his. He nodded. We set the forks against the wall. Checking the belt drive while I slid the cotter pin into position on the tractor hitch, Pa asked, “You looking forward to it?”
My heart sank clear to my toes. I kept my head down, fiddling with the hitch. He continued like I’d said yes. “You’re gonna have to apply yourself, boy. No more of your damn daydreaming, you here?”
I straightened and nodded, not exactly sure what I was agreeing to. One thing was for certain, I’d give up most anything, say anything, do anything to avoid going to the new senior high on the opposite side of the county.
Miles and miles and miles away from Zach…
Pa’s voice chipped away at my worrying. “You got plenty of time for all that…”
My gut twisting, his words washing over me like I’d gone deaf, I choked out, “Time for what?”
Grabbing my collar, he yanked me close and leaned down, so close I tasted his breath, the foul stench of the air we’d been sucking down, maybe with a hint of tobacco, the scent sweetish alongside his annoyance. “That’s exactly…” He shook me, shook and lifted and shook some more ’til my teeth chattered, each word punctuated with a rattle in my skull. “…exactly what I’m talking about. You listen, boy, and you listen good. You got responsibilities now.” His eyes got dark like they did when he was getting ready to wale on me. “Those townies, they’re bad news. When it’s time, you’ll pick a nice girl from the church. Understood?”
“Girl.” I damn near croaked, the laughter bubbling from somewhere deep inside.
He climbed onto the ancient blue Ford and settled on the seat. Before he cranked it over, he said, “Yore Ma’s the one talked me into letting you attend instead a’going to the VoTech. She said she’s got faith in you, boy. Don’t make me regret it, you hear?”
I watched him head for the field we’d be prepping for winter wheat. My head was in a muddle. When they’d told me about the new school, about how I was starting something called the general program, how I was lucky to get accepted given how I never applied myself … I’d thought that maybe God had taken something I done personal, that he was punishing me by putting me back with the ones who’d made my life a living hell all last year.
The only way I’d survived was Zach having my back and me knowing this year we’d both be heading for the VoTech school, together, him and me. Riding the bus. Maybe sharing bench space in a class. Eating lunch. Being friends.
Then two weeks ago they’d hit me with it, the news, the fucking good news that all but condemned me to death, and there was nothing I could say, nothing I could do.
Ma was on the porch, shaking rugs, the dust flying everywhere.
I asked, “Why do you hate me?” and stared up at her fwapping the braided oval against the railing.
She tucked it over her arm and used the back of her wrist to shove a few strands of hair out of her eyes. “What, dear?”
I reached for the armload, meaning to carry it inside for her, but she shook her head no and asked, “Where’s your Pa?”
“Spreading pigshit over on the wheat field.”
Giving me stink eye she growled, “Jackie,” but she didn’t say it like she meant it. It was what it was. With a sigh, she said, “Run and tell your father we have to leave in an hour for the viewing.”
I jumped off the top step, landing with a squish, my boots still thick with what we’d been loading onto the spreader. Spinning around, I called out, “Why do I have to go?”
Lips pursed, she mounted the pulpit and delivered the lecture I’d been hearing all day. “Silas Barker was a good friend. A good man.” She hipped the screen door open and disappeared inside.
Resigned I mumbled, “He ain’t anymore,” and ran to find Pa.
Pa went to roll his sleeves up but Ma gave him one of her looks. While she fussed getting Grams’ hatpin just so, I sidled to the window and pretended I was killing time. I shoved my hands in my pockets and rocked on my heels. The shoes hurt. They were the Sunday ones, spit-polished and stiff as concrete.
Catching Pa’s eye, I said, “Turkey’s loose again.”
Pa swore and joined me at the window. Sure enough the bastard was settling himself in Ma’s garden, pulling at whatever caught his fancy.
Marching to the door, Pa snarled, “Gotta catch that goddamn bird.”
Ma did a body block. “Leave him, dear.”
Grams looked up with interest, stared at Pa for a hiccough of time, then swung her gaze to me. She wore that you’re guilty expression that had my ears tingling.
I spoke up before anybody had a chance to point a finger in my direction. “I better do it before that fox figures out he’s got dinner on the loose.” Grams smirked.
Pa looked hopeful, like maybe we was both getting off the hook. He said, “Boy’s right. We should…”
Ma squashed that right quick with the pronouncement, “We have a casserole.”
Pa swallowed, you could see his Adams apple throb with the effort. He was doing some fancy footwork inside his head, looking to get out of the viewing, thinking out a counter offer of making the after part at the widow’s house, but Grams but the nail in that particular coffin with, “People will be asking after us if we’re not there.”
Trying to look sad, like I was being asked to give up going to the movie or to get an ice cream at the DariCream, I mumbled, “It’s okay, I don’t mind.”
Grams sidled next to me. “You sure about that, Jackie?”
“Yes’m.” I was never so sure of anything in my life.
Ma had her worried frown, her voice gone squeaky. “I don’t have anything out for dinner…”
“S’okay, Ma. I can make peanut butter ’n jelly.” I crossed my fingers and toes. “Tell everyone I’m real sorry I missed the, uh … the goodbye.”
Grams snorted and hobbled out of the room. Ma stood in the doorway, waiting for Pa to go first. When he’d headed down the stairs, his shoes scuffing on the hard wood, Ma put her hands on her hips and did that laser thing, sending beams into my skull like some damn lie detector device. She asked, “Didn’t your Pa just fix that latch the other day?”
Wavering between yes and no, I sat on, “I guess,” and shrugged.
“And you helped.” That one wasn’t a question.
Gulping, “I, uh… I had to get the toolbox…” I let it go at that.
She nodded, did her “uh-huh” and called down to Grams, “Be right there, Bertha.” With one more sweep with the laser, she nailed me with, “I don’t want you wandering, off, Jackie. You hear me?” She fussed with the collar on the shirt I was sweating bullets into, sweat that was dripping down my back into my shorts.
“No, ma’am.” A drip tickled my ass. God, please, not there. Not now.
“We’ll be home as soon as we can.” She squeezed the collar together, boxing me in good and tight. Sniffing like she was smelling trouble leaking out my damn pores, she pondered on what I might get up to, then let me go. I almost fell down I was so relieved.
Staggering backwards, I stuttered, “I-I-I’ll take care of everything. You don’t have to worry…”
I ducked out of their bedroom and swung right, heading for my room. Ma followed.
“I, uh, I better change into … into…”
The shirt stuck like glue to my skin as I fumbled with the buttons, swearing a blue streak under my breath. She took a step into my room. I was half afraid she was going to undress me right there and then, but Pa yelled they were waiting on her so she said, “Promise me.”
“Um, sure. Don’t worry about anything. I’ll be right here.” Liar, liar, pants on fire. “I promise.”
Staying away from the window was probably the smartest thing I’d done all day. If she’d looked up to see me looking down, making sure they were going, I was pretty sure she’d be climbing those stairs like a goddamn Marine, coming to haul my ass to the car, turkey or no turkey.
I dug my cut-offs out of the bottom drawer of the dresser and swapped fancy Sunday-go-to-funeral for my crappy pond clothes.
It took me damn near an hour to convince the turkey to get back in the pen. It took another twenty minutes to go the roundabout way to the pond, checking to make sure nobody was watching.
Zach was sitting here, back to the tree, head on his knees. I skidded to a stop and knelt in front of him, teasing, “Hey, I thought I had a good chance at beating you.”
He lifted his head and picked a spot somewhere over my shoulder and mumbled, “You’re too fucking late.”